IBM has opened up its quantum computing research to the web, launching an online simulator that lets anyone run quantum experiments on the company's hardware. The machine in question isn't recognizable as a computer to most people — it's not like you can run Windows on it; it only process basic logical equations. But still, IBM thinks online access will spark interest and pave the way for future developments. "It’s meant to be educational, but also to be the beginnings of a larger framework," IBM Quantum Computing Group manager Jerry Chow told The New York Times.
it's all about the qubits
Quantum computing is still an esoteric field of research, but in essence, it's focused around the principle of the qubit or quantum bit. While bits in regular computers are only capable of representing information as 1s or 0s, quantum bits can be 1s, 0s, or both at the same time. This is known as the superposition principle and — in theory — will allow quantum computers of the future to be exponentially more powerful than current devices.
Many companies are trying to find ways to process, store, and read qubits of information, but there's no established playbook of how to do it. Researchers from different companies (including Google and Microsoft, as well as IBM) have experimented with all sorts of strange machinery to try and master the qubit, including optical lattices, nuclear magnetic devices, and even diamond-based systems. IBM's own five-qubit computer runs with the help of cryogenic refrigeration, keeping some of its part colder than outer space in order to preserve the fragile information.
The company's new web portal, though, is less exotic. Researchers have to request an invite to user the system, and once they're in, they're shown a computing framework that looks a little like a musical staff. They can put together equations using various logical gates on this background, and then choose to run them as simulations, or send the information via the web to IBM's actual quantum hardware. However, IBM's explainer video below mentions a queue to have your tests processed, and it seems that some sort of transaction is required in a currency called "QCoins." (We're not sure how these are allocated.)
This isn't an entirely new enterprise, either. In 2014, Google launched its own Quantum Computing Playground, which simulated a system with between six and 22 qubits, but that didn't connect to any real hardware — IBM certainly has the advantage there.
In both cases, though, the main goals seem to be creating awareness and laying the foundation for future quantum computing platforms. It's worth remembering also, that even platforms like these can have a real impact on research. Earlier this year, users playing a game simulation of a quantum computing environment helped provide new scientific insights for researchers. Who knows, IBM's web platform could help produce some breakthroughs of its own.
Verge Video: Quantum Computing may be closer than we think